If Bill Maher's new book, New Rules, spends one week on the bestseller list for every talk-show appearance its author is doing, he will make his publisher, Rodale, very, very, rich.
The new release, with the ironic subtitle Polite Musings from a Timid Observer, will resonate even if you've never seen the comedian's HBO show Real Time—topical jokes that don't always move in the way you'd expect, and never lack for a good sneer. They'll usually run for a few sentences and embed some small jokes before the bigger payoff. (On a British campaign to recruit homosexuals. "England doesn't have to go out of its way to get gays in its Navy.... You're the British Navy. If you were any gayer, you'd be the White House Press Corps.")
At once a clever joke book and an effective brand extension (roughly two-thirds of the material, including the title, comes from bits on the show, which starts its new season next week), the book hit the PWbestseller list in its first week. It's likely to stay there.
So how does one of show business's most successful authors—he's written four previous titles—really feel about books and the publishing process? We put him on our own politically incorrect hot seat.
PW: The whole idea of New Rules, on the show and in the book, is basically a conceit to throw everything in but the bathtub, isn't it?
Bill Maher:Yes, I could have called it I Decree. Because there's something in our head that "if I was king, room service would know what the soup was." And that's what it taps into.
Rodale is perhaps a little bit of a surprising choice; many of the books they do concern self-improvement. Are you in the guru business now?
It was a surprising choice. But I learned over the year with TV, you always do best with someone who has something to prove, with a network that's trying to do something that they've never done before. Comedy Central started with Politically Incorrect in 1993. They had nothing and they were going to be innovative. I knew this was a company trying to be a different kind of company, and that's what I wanted.
We've seen so many TV personalities go from their broadcast platform to writing. But it's a lot easier to be topical in a show than in a book. How hard is the transition?
A lot of people had said to me, "Gosh, when did this book go to press? You got things like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes." We just put it together as close to the pub date as possible. And we're okay until they break up.
So many TV personalities are writing books now. What's the appeal—literary cachet?
The way I see it is that there are three ways that [expression] goes. There's the thing in your mind, the thing they take you to Bellevue for. There's talking, but talk is cheap. And then there's writing. With writing, thoughts have to be clearer. It means someone has to put in some clarity and can't just dribble it out.
So it's about improving one's way of thinking?
Well, we live in a day and age when it's so easy with cut-and-paste. I don't know how Hemingway and Shakespeare ever did it when they had to actually write it. They ought to have gotten a Pulitzer just for trying.